The Rescue Mission in Ithaca

Ithaca, N.Y. — Fewer homeless people are living on the streets of Ithaca these days – a drop from 50 to around 12 per night, human service professionals estimate.

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The credit for this change — and the pressure to sustain it  — has fallen on Ithaca’s Rescue Mission and its State Street shelter, which is maxing itself out in order to get as many people off the street as possible.

“They’ve really been opening their doors,” said Deborah Dietrich, Executive Director of Opportunities, Alternatives and Resources of Tompkins County. “But I think it’s just too many people in that space.”

The Rescue Mission, which had been allowing over twenty people sleep in their shelter, is now having to deal with tight occupancy rules and funding cuts.

The Rescue Mission in Ithaca
The Rescue Mission in Ithaca

Taking over for the Red Cross

When the Rescue Mission took over the State Street shelter from the Red Cross in March of 2014, the number of people staying in the shelter increased sharply.

According to Dan Sieburg, Chief Programs Officer at the Rescue Mission, the Red Cross had been housing an average of 6-7 people per night. The Rescue Mission, on the other hand, consistently maxes out the space – hitting its 20 person limit nearly every night.

(Another factor contributing to the the overall drop in homelessness is Carmen Guidi’s Second Wind Cottages Project, which houses 6 men in Newfield.)

The reason for the increased number of shelter residents has to do with the Rescue Mission’s relatively lenient admission standards. Whereas the Red Cross would require that all prospective shelter residents be pre-approved by the Department of Social Services, the Rescue Mission tries to house anyone and everyone who shows up – even if they’re not approved for housing.

“If we say ‘no,’ they’re out on the street,” Sieburg said. “And what’s going to happen to them then?”

According to Sieburg, because Ithaca does not have a “wet shelter,” the shelter sometimes has to house residents who have been drinking or who might be on drugs. Sieburg said he asks his staff to use its best judgement.

“It’s case by case,” Sieburg said. “If somebody comes in and they’ve had a drink we might say ‘sit in the chair in the lobby and sleep it off.’  If it doesn’t feel safe and we feel like they might not be safe, we might ask them to come back the next day, not under the influence, and then we might work with them.”

Sieburg said the Rescue Mission’s primary concern is getting people off the street.

“And it’s a fine line,” Sieburg said. “What happens when ‘single-mom-with-child’ shows up at 2am saying, ‘I’ve got no place to go.’ Do we bring her in and risk code violations and fines and bad press? Or do we try to send her somewhere else? Options are limited.”

Occupancy Limits and Cuts

For a while in the spring the shelter was housing more than 20 people per night (Sieburg would not say exactly how many). However, following a spike in demand in July, the Fire Department visited the shelter and set a strict limit at 20. The shelter has been operating at that maximum ever since.

“And even that doesn’t meet the need in the community,” Sieburg said. “We continually have to turn people away.”

Although the Rescue Mission is housing more people than the Red Cross was – and is open seven days a week to the Red Cross’ five – Sieburg said they are are receiving less grant funding from DSS.

DSS just cut $75K which they’d been counting on for the upcoming year.

“It’s been tough,” Sieburg said. “It’s been a busy year.”

In the face of a growing need, Sieburg says he’s worried about the diminished capacity of shelter services.

“If we have 20 beds filled every night, where are we going to be three, four, five years from now?” Sieburg asked. “How many people will be turned away?”

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